ATLANTA (CN) – Voicing some fatigue with the long-running defamation suit, the 11th Circuit grappled Friday with the appeal by an Ethiopian blogger who wants to be reinstated as a defendant.
“This case is almost as old as I am,” Judge Richard Goldberg joked to laughs in the Atlanta federal appeals court in Atlanta.
Normally on the bench at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, Goldberg was on a three-judge panel this morning to hear an appeal in a libel case filed six years ago by Ethiopian billionaire Jemal Ahmed against a blog called the Ethiopian Review and its publisher, Elias Kifle.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones removed Kifle as an unnecessary party in 2016, however, and an attorney for the journalist emphasized why they find such removal prejudicial.
“If the 11th Circuit agrees with Mr. Kifle on this point, then the case would have to be dismissed entirely again because Mr. Kifle’s presence in the case would deprive the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear the case,” Noah Graubart with the firm Fish and Richardson said in an interview after the hearing.
Ethiopian Review has already posted a retraction of the libelous article that accused Ahmed of human trafficking, and Judge Jones also awarded Ahmed compensatory damages of $145,210 in 2015. Jones cut a $50,000 award of punitive damages in half last year.
Graubart noted at Friday’s hearing, however, that the default judgment against Ethiopian Review was entered at a time when the publication had no counsel and was thus unable to defend itself.
“This case concerned Mr. Kifle’s political expression; he was unable to afford counsel; and his litigation opponent was represented by one of the world’s largest large firms,” said Graubart. “We thus agreed to undertake the representation to help insure that Mr. Kifle and Ethiopian Review, Inc. got their fair day in court.”
Arguing that Kifle is an indispensable party to the case, Graubart noted that it was Kifle who wrote the article about Ahmed, and that Ahmed will still try to pursue Kifle personally.
Arguing for Ahmed meanwhile DLA Piper attorney Mary Gately said there is no basis to reinstate Kifle now.
“The standard of review is an abuse of discretion,” Gately said.
“Kifle, as a dismissed party, has no standing to appeal the case,” she added.
Though Graubart defended Kifle’s right to dismiss his role in the suit, Gately asked why he is doing so at the 11th Circuit.
“If he had an interest, he should have done it in a motion to intervene after he was stricken,” Gately said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson pressed Graubart on this point, asking him to explain how a dismissed party can show standing.
“He was the one that was dismissed so he has standing to appeal,” Graubart replied.
The judge also questioned Gately why the case is still ongoing.
“This sounds like a case that should have been settled,” Wilson said. “Have you talked about a settlement?”
“I agree,” said Gately. “We’ve talked about a settlement but never got anywhere.”
She told the court that “Ahmed is entitled to go after Ethiopian Review Inc. for assets because he was deeply injured.”
“He was accused of the heinous crime of human trafficking underage girls in Ethiopia and keeping them in slave-like conditions in Saudi Arabia,” Gately added. “He’s a global businessman and his reputation was harmed.”
The attorney gave a positive assessment of the hearing Friday afternoon. “The hearing went well from our perspective and we hope the outcome will be an affirmance of the District Court’s ruling,” Gately said in an email.